China also must face a serious anachronism. Despite its repeated revolutionary convulsions over the past century, it remains a multinational empire filled with ethnic groups chafing under government control.
This makes it resemble some of the polyglot empires facing trouble before World War I. The Ottoman Empire, dominated by ethnic Turks, kept an uneasy control over Christian Greeks and Slavs. It also ruled clans and tribes of Arabs, Kurds, Jews, and other groups. Czarist Russia strained to control Muslims in Central Asia, Catholic Poles, Protestant Christians in Scandinavia and along the Baltic. Austria-Hungary tried to split power between its two major ethnic groups under one ruling family, but mainly alienated the other 13 peoples.
Decades later, the "nationalities problem" erupted under Gorbachev to help drive the Soviet Union into the dustbin of history.
China has to face this problem too, which may explain why the past year has seen them following in the path of the empires of old. Trying to prop up internal unity by gaining risky external successes against old rivals.
According to the 2000 Chinese census, published in the CIA World Factbook, 91 percent of the country's population is Han Chinese. While this may look overwhelming, it must be remembered that the remaining nine percent add up to 140 million people, approximately the same population as the Russian Federation.
Also, as the map shows, Han Chinese are concentrated into the eastern part of the country. The southwest contains the formerly independent, Buddhist, and oft persecuted Tibetans. The resentment of northwestern Muslims, mostly Turkic Uighurs, against the atheist regime occasionally boils over. In the last few weeks, Chinese authorities imprisoned a prominent Uighur academic and advocate.
Inner Mongolians side by side with independent Mongolia. Traditionally this is a recipe for discontent. Three years ago, authorities feared the effects of major protests against Chinese rule. Manchuria in the northeast has a high concentration of Han, but has traditionally been considered a separate people from the rest of China. Much like Sicilians often do not consider themselves to be true Italians.
Significant divisions exist between the non Han 140 million. But an economic downturn combined with the continued repressive policies of Beijing could unite them in hostility.
China's aggressive moves against Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, and the United States in the past year follow the pattern of the old imperial multinational states. Concerns about economic decline and ethnic upheaval push their attention outward. Although the imperial power usually fears the effect of war, it assumes the risk anyway, gambling that it will emerge stronger in the long run. Unfortunately, such risks often do actually lead to war.
Regardless of how strong China actually is, or is estimated to be, these kinds of actions have historically pointed to a perception of weakness. China may perceive itself to be weakening relatively or absolutely. Or think that it is vulnerable on other fronts. Multinational empires tended in the past to believe that external shows of strength, aggression, and even bullying, would protect it externally and domestically.
And China is weakening. Since 2010, each of its major ethnic groups have pushed back against government persecution and abuse. Its economy, while certainly growing, likely was not developing nearly as fast as reported. Authoritarian and totalitarian states accidentally encourage falsehood in economic reports because officials fear reporting unpleasant truth. China also pours resources into ridiculous mammoth projects, much as the old Soviet Union, to try and prove its advancement.
Most economic forecasts for 2014 predict problems for the Chinese economy.
Knowing the history of states in the situation and condition of 21st century China is helpful in predicting how to respond to emerging problems. China may be pushing to join the modern economies, but it still is weighed down by problems of decades and even centuries ago.